The Ride Home
It has occurred to me several times recently that I seem to have a penchant for doing things the hard way. Having a kid seem too easy? Well, why not do it out of wedlock, out of employment and out-of-state from family and friends? In fact, why not add one (actually, hell, make it two) unceasingly demanding (now teenage) kittens?
So probably I should have listened to the tiny voice in the back of my head (the same one that had flagged the perhaps two cats is not the same as one) that suggested interstate rail travel with a newborn may not be as straightforward as I imagined.
But it’s only 4.5hrs. And at least, I thought, I’ll be able to walk and move around as I cannot do on the bus. At least I’ll be able to feed him on demand as I can’t when I drive. So I paid my thirty-three dollars (trains in Australia being both silly expensive and stupid slow) and boarded, stroller in tow, to find my allocated seat. In my vague recollection of this train, which in retrospect may have been rose-tinted with remembered sorties across continental Europe, I’d been certain that there would be space to park the stroller both out of the way of other passengers (thus not being that annoying parent who assumes their stroller-occupying-infant trumps the needs of all other occupants) and near enough to my seat that L could remain in his stroller and I could sit as an unencumbered individual.
Wrong. This was a complete fabrication.
The seats are configured in sardine-friendly rows and allocated on a regimented basis so that even if only one other ticket has been sold it will be for the seat next to yours. That there is nowhere to put a stroller was immediately apparent. In fact, it barely fit down the aisle – but it did, just (causing me to send thanks for tamping down my basic-bitch urge many months ago to get the biggest most fuck-off brand-name pram that could transport a citadel beneath its rain cover). So there I was, that person going, ‘oh sorry’ ‘excuse me’ ‘apologies’ to every parcel / piece of clothing or foot that someone had left protruding into the aisle. By the time I found my seat, it would be safe to say I was quite flustered.
Things did not improve. There was a chap sitting next to my window seat and I immediately abandoned all designs on my allocated perch, instead opting to commandeer a single seat that had a gap next to it into which a collapsed stroller could conceivably fit. Placing L on the seat I attempted to collapse the stroller while murmuring shushing noises as L, sensing weakness, picked his moment to protest at the indignity of being left on a train seat.
An elderly woman in the seat in front turns around disapprovingly. L and I settle in and I try to settle him. Five thirty would often find us on the couch watching yet another couple relocate to the Cornish coast on Escape to the Country as L cluster feeds his way to obesity. I can now report that the bright halogens and noise of a full carriage (and it is FULL) pose significantly more challenges to the concentration span of a hungry-but-inattentive infant. (It is, PS, one of the weirdest things about babies that the hungrier they get the worse they become at feeding.)
So L is grumping and mewling, latching and tossing, protesting when I cover him with muslin & protesting when I remove it. He’s twisting so as to leave my entire left breast exposed to the tittering teen girls in the row opposite. I am overheated and sweaty, flushed with stress and embarrassment at my predicament of being a parent in public.
On paper the words read as simple motherhood but in the moment I am awash with panic and my breath runs short as I yearn fervently for escape. I text my mother. A true adult I tell her I don’t think I can do this. A true champion she tells me if I get off at the next stop, she’ll come pick me up. I do not feel even half of my twenty-eight years as a wave of relief floods me at the idea of maternal rescue. Of course the crash back of adulthood comes with the knowledge that if I leave the train I will be delaying the inevitable (since my car, partner and life all lie at my destination) and missing brunch with a friend who has herself travelled interstate with the single stated purpose of meeting L.
The ticket lady comes. An extremely small and very wiry lady who clearly graduated from the school of hard knocks some time back, she brusquely requests proof of travel from each passenger in turn. She gets to us and I fumble, trying to keep L latched while fishing out my phone, which has on it my ticket. It is generally unsuccessful – L detaches, howling and I drop my phone into the aisle. The ticket lady retrieves my phone, assesses my proof of travel and then gestures to my screaming infant, asking where his ticket is. His what? I stare blankly at her. His ticket she repeats, he needs an infant ticket.
I am thrown. I have only just got my head around the idea of L as an attachment to myself. The idea of him being counted as an individual being is inconceivable. But how to tell her that I didn’t think my son was a person? It is all too much. It doesn’t matter I tell the ticket lady; I’m just going to get off at the next stop. My voice hitches and the words emerge strangled and high pitch.
Her manner changes and she looks concerned. No need for that she tells me, the ticket is free and would simply give me two seats instead of one. Since I don’t have one, would I like her to help me move to the front of the carriage where there are some spare seats?
Illogical it may be but her kindness is the last straw. Suddenly I’m crying, my still-squalling infant clutched to my breast. My distress distresses her and she seeks to comfort me but it’s a vicious cycle as the embarrassment of crying in public hastens the tears streaming down my face.
It is mortifying. People are staring. L is screaming. And the poor ticket lady is still patting my shoulder, clearly a bit surprised by all the emotion her innocent question unleashed. She asks me what is wrong and I babble something mangled about the baby being too distracted to feed and too hungry to sleep. ‘Come come’ she says, ‘lets get you settled in the other carriage.’
The previously officious ticket lady is now my protective knight, guarding my passage down the cramped aisle with its many pairs of watching eyes. In my heightened (hysterical?) state, these eyes are prying, judging my plight with contempt and distain. She escorts me to the next carriage, which is completely – blissfully – empty and then returns to get my luggage and stroller. She then returns again, this time with a cup of tea.
The tea is superb, second only to the cup of tea I drank immediately post-partum. I am so grateful I could cry but that would seem perverse, even to me, so instead I do my utmost to stop. The train pulls into, and then out of, its first stop. I text mum to tell her I decided to stay.
L latches properly, feeds, and sleeps. A lady from the other carriage, traveling with her pre-teen son, comes in to tell me that it does get easier. I watch the sun set, a brilliant bloody mess across the countryside, and give thanks for the unfathomable kindness of strangers.